It’s nearing the end of October and the geese are heading south. You know what that means: it’s time to plan your winter escape. If an extended tropical vacation isn’t in your cards, consider a quick trip to Palm Springs, the sunniest city in the U.S.A. with over 300 days of sunshine each year. Click here for my post on what to do in Palm Springs, and here for suggestions on where to eat and drink. My advice though, is to set aside a couple of days for road tripping in the area because you’d be amazed at what lies beyond the city’s limits.
First things first: back roads are always more exciting than interstates or main highways so take Hwy 111 south through Coachella and aim for Thermal where your first stop should be the Oasis Date Gardens. One thing you must eat/drink when you’re in this part of California is a date shake. Grab one here and sample some of many varieties of organic dates grown on this 175 acre ranch.
South of Thermal, stay on Hwy 111 (also called Grapefruit Blvd) and head for Mecca. The town is named after Mecca in Saudi Arabia—not for any semblance of holiness, but because of the similarity in temperature; both places reach highs of 120 Fahrenheit in summer months. Where millions of people make the annual pilgrimage to the holy Mecca, a growing number curious people head to the Imperial Valley’s Mecca to witness one of the most bizarre scenes in the U.S.A., the Salton Sea.
The Salton Sea was created as a result of an engineering blunder in 1905. In 1900, unprotected cuts were made in the Colorado River to divert water to farmers in the Imperial Valley near the Salton Sink. In 1905 torrential rains caused the river to flood the cuts and water gushed in to the Sink for two years before the breaches could be plugged. The end result was a body of water 35 miles long and 15 miles wide.
With no outlets and a constant inflow of salty agricultural runoff, the sea, today, has a salinity factor 50% higher than the Pacific Ocean. In the 1950s, fish were introduced and the Salton Sea became a mecca in its own right for boaters, fishermen, and celebrities from Los Angeles wanting to escape the city. Resorts, restaurants, yacht clubs and marinas sprang up and the area became known as the California Riviera.
In the mid-70s, tropical storms brought unending rains to the valley and the Salton Sea flooded its banks. No amount of sandbagging could hold back the water and most buildings along the water’s edge were damaged beyond repair. With salty irrigation run off continuing to fill the basin, the sea became a salty soup. Oxygen levels in the water were depleted, fish died by the millions and created nutrient-rich water that invited algae blooms. It remains an unending cycle of life and death in the water with death tipping the scale in its favour: dead fish spawn botulism-creating maggots; birds eat the infected fish and become infected themselves; they die, decompose, and become part of the nutrients eaten by the fish. At one point, dead fish stacked up three feet deep, and even today, unfathomable numbers of fish die each year. You’ll need shoes to walk on this beach; the beach is not made of course sand but of trillions of fish bones and barnacles.
The remnants of the town of Bombay Beach are to the south of Mecca. Some people who bought property in the 1960s still live in mobile homes and ramshackle buildings.
The town—according to one resident in the 2004 documentary, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea—has become “a place to come and die.” Property here now is worth pennies on the dollar and residents can’t afford to move elsewhere. Many of them wouldn’t move though, even if they could. There is a protected sense of community here and residents, don’t take too kindly to busybodies and looky-loos, so, if you go, be pleasant and respectful. Stop in at the Ski Inn (a place, where, in the height of its glory, you could water-ski right up to its dock) and have a drink with the locals. Strike up a conversation with Scheherezade, the bartender, who, like her namesake, has stories to tell of life in Bombay Beach.
And, buy a can of fish assholes. You’ll be a hit at your next dinner party.
The road south of Bombay Beach leads to Niland where things get even more interesting. In 1914, the Imperial Farm Lands Association forged the words Nile and Land and named the town Niland as their nod to the surrounding fertile agricultural land near Egypt’s famous river. Restaurants in these parts are few and far between and by this point your trip you’ll probably be hungry. Stop in at the Buckshot Deli & Diner. It is everything you might hope for in a diner in the middle of the desert next to a man-made, fetid sea. The food is simple, the decor is mildly tacky, the room is clean and the servers, pleasant. Fuel up on burritos and sweet tea before exploring Salvation Mountain, Slab City and East Jesus a few miles to the east.
Salvation Mountain was started by a Leonard Knight, who began building a sand and cement monument to God in the late 80s after his bed-sheet hot air balloon experiment failed. In 1991 the poorly built mountain fell down so he asked God to take over. With God’s guidance, Leonard began to rebuild, only this time, using adobe clay, hay and anything else he could get his hands on. Leonard passed away in 2014 but not before covering every inch of the mountain—as well as abandoned cars and sheds on the property—in bright paint and biblical quotes to remind us that “God is Love.”
The mountain has tunnels and hobbit-holes to walk through as well as a path to the top where you can view unimpeded views of Imperial County with the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto mountains to the northwest.
A few miles beyond Salvation Mountain is Slab City, once a WWII military training base, now home to people who want to lay low, live rent-free, hang out, or just be. The name, Slab City, is derived from the cement slabs that remained after the base closed.
East Jesus, a part of Slab City, is an off-grid artist colony. The website states, “Together, the inhabitants of East Jesus and offsite members provide a refuge for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laymen and other wandering geniuses.” Despite the name, there is no religious connection but, rather, connotes “the middle of nowhere beyond the edge of services.” Guided tours are available for a donation in the amount of your choice. Do it, this place is absolutely mind-blowing.
When you get back on the road, pass Niland and continue south towards Calipatria. Take a right on W. Schrimpf Road. Six miles west, you’ll find a field of bubbling mud pots. If you have your car windows down, you might hear the gurgling just before you arrive.
The area is on top of the San Andreas fault and the mud pots are formed from water pushing ash and mud up to the surface. The bubbling mud forms mini volcano-like structures. Geo-thermal power plants are located nearby; you’ll probably notice them before you notice the mud pots.
Time to head west.
Just like Bombay Beach, Salton City was developed in the 1950s as a resort community and suffered destruction and abandonment because of the floods in the 1970s. Improvements to Hwy. 86 and a newly built casino entice people to cash in on hundreds of empty, affordable building lots.
There are a couple of watering holes to check out, Capt’n Jim’s is one of them. Nothing fancy here, not by a long shot, but that’s the charm of places like this. Capt’n Jims is one of those joints where you walk in and everyone in the room stops and stares.
The best seats in the house at places like this are always at the bar because the bartenders, like Jenny here, are usually people who have lived in the area for decades and because of that, are the best historians around. A juke box sits in the corner; go ahead and select a song or two. We did, and an old fellow playing billiards thanked us saying how nice it was to hear something different for a change. I have a feeling nothing much changes around here. If you’re hungry, a small menu offers some deep-fried items and DiGiorno pizza. Like I said, nothing fancy, but definitely worth the stop.
The Salton Sea is an easy 60 minute drive from Palm Springs but we took two days to visit these particular places. The area is surreal and the photo opportunities are limitless. We found most of these points of interest through Atlas Obscura which has become our road-tripping bible. It is truly the best resource to find ‘off the beaten path’ oddities worldwide.
Stay tuned for time machines, alien sightings, a 7-story rock, sleeping pods in the desert and Joshua trees as we head north of Palm Springs towards Yucca Valley and beyond.